With the season having passed it’s midpoint, it now seems an appropriate time to carry out an assessment of Manchester United’s tactics so far. In terms of results, points accumulated and goals scored this season has been excellent and United are well placed to win at least one major trophy. Yet, they have conceded more goals than expected. In this article, we look at a few general points and create an overall picture of the season, comparing it to last year. In Part II, we will look at the formations most used by United this season.
This season saw United alternating between a 4-4-1-1 formation and a 4-2-3-1 shape. This was a development on the previous year, 2010-11, where United’s shape had been more rigid. So at the start of last season most United fans were pleased to see a more fluid approach, especially in the early weeks. During that time, Cleverley and Anderson were the usual selection in the centre of midfield and the new dynamic was in part due to their natural movement as players are fairly mobile and like to run at the opposition.
The downside of this is that both players have a tendency towards positional ill-discipline. This contributed to United conceding a number of goals from moves through the middle and shots from the centre of the pitch. This partnership did not last that long due to Cleverley’s injury and Anderson’s dip in form and as a result, play became less fluid.
That derby at Old Trafford was a shock to the system and knocked the team out of its stride. Results did not suffer but performances did with United grinding out a number of results with a ‘safety first’ mentality – an approach designed, it seemed, to make sure United did not slide any further behind City. In this period, the preferred formation was 4-4-1-1 with Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield.
As December came and went, United’s play became more expansive with three main factors contributing to our improvement: Carrick’s form, Valencia’s form and the return of Scholes. The season’s finale is well known but in reviewing last year we would pick out four significant points:
• Cleverley started the season well and it was a great disappointment when he was injured. What we had seen at the start suggested a player with a big future at the club, young and raw, and someone who we presumed would figure prominently in planning for this season.
• Up front, United struggled to put the opposition centre-backs under significant pressure. Approach play was often good but we were not making life uncomfortable enough for our opponents’ central defenders. An old style centre-forward from the Planet Centre Forward was needed.
• The balance in the centre of the midfield was not right as United lacked a combative ball winner. At the start of the season, United played two mobile central midfield players, Cleverley and Anderson. With the switch to Carrick and Scholes, they played two creative but less mobile midfield players. In both instances the pairings seemed, more or less, to share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The loss of Fletcher to illness robbed United of an alternative type of player.
• As the season wore on, United’s attacking play became increasingly lob-sided. This was largely due to Valencia’s excellent form on the right, the side where the greater threat seemed manifested. Nani and Young’s inconsistency was also a factor in this.
The four points above have had some bearing on how United have developed tactically this year.
Cleverley is back and has remained free of major injuries, making a significant contribution and helping the balance in midfield. Last year, Sir Alex often paired Carrick with Scholes which worked fairly well but both these players tend to sit in front of the back four. We have always questioned how well Carrick plays when positioned alongside Scholes. In contrast, when Cleverley plays, he runs at the opposition and pushes their midfield back which tends to create space for Carrick to play. Carrick struggles when pressed but alongside Cleverley, he seems to get the room he needs and it is no surprise to see him enjoying his best year for some time.
Anderson is a similar type of player from Cleverley. This year, if Sir Alex has played a 4-2-3-1 formation he has avoided playing Cleverley and Anderson together. They have played together but generally when the team shape has involved a midfield diamond. The exception to this was the game against Reading. United ran out comfortable winners in this game but this was perhaps as much to do with Reading’s limitations as any excellence on United’s behalf. The game shape was noticeable for the amount of space available to Reading in front of the United back four, shades of the early games in season 2011-12.
The lack of a natural ball winner in midfield is still a pertinent issue. Fletcher’s recurring illness is a concern but even if he were fully fit, it would remain an issue because having only one player of his type is limiting. Sir Alex has responded to this by utilising different formations, presumably to reduce the team’s reliance on this style of player. We will consider those formations in Part II of this article.
Robin van Persie is perhaps not a centre forward in a traditional English mode, but who cares? What a player!
Fast, both in thought and deed, strong, able to hold the ball up and bring others into play. He can lead the line or sit behind, is an excellent finisher, moves well on and off the ball, finds space and scores last minute decisive goals against Manchester City. What more could we want?
He is certainly a handful and puts the opposition centre backs under pressure, so creating a continuing threat and creating space elsewhere for other players. Problem solved.
Antonio Valencia had a great year last year but has struggled to replicate that form this season. This is unfortunate, not just in respect of his form but for the whole team, because so far nobody else has stepped up to the plate.
Nani has remained inconsistent and Young, who has missed some time through injury, has struggled to make an impact. What’s gone wrong for Valencia?
We have heard speculation about injury and plenty of people questioned why Valencia doesn’t take people on. We don’t know if he is carrying an injury and it may be that after last season, teams have now set out to counter his strengths, but what is clear is that he is now being used differently.
Last year Valencia had an impact in match situations where he was able to run from deep positions. Now he doesn’t seem to have the burst of pace needed to go past people. He isn’t a player who beats a man with trickery, but rather with speed and strength. If he can get up a head of steam he is able to run past people over the second ten yards. To do this he must start from a deep position and Sir Alex has tried him at full-back on a number of occasions.
This year he appears to be playing too high, if he receives the ball in an advanced position, he has no space to build up that burst of speed. In these situations he tends to play a return pass back or inside to a midfield player rather than to take his man on.
Again, the exception to this pattern was seen in the Reading game, where after Jones’ injury, Valencia moved to a full-back position behind Nani. Nani tended to stay narrow and cut inside, which left space for Valencia to break forward. As a consequence he perhaps looked at his most threatening and effective so far this season, especially in the second half, when he created a goal and contributed to a number of other threatening moves.
Our final point, and perhaps the most important point is that it is not just United’s league position and points total which have improved this season, but their play and tactical strength as a whole. In fact our view is that last season, despite losing the league we had improved on the previous season. It was just that City had improved more. Our own year on year improvement suggests a bright future ahead, both in the coming months and beyond, whatever others do.
Part II will be published later this week. For even more fantastic tactical analysis, visit the Manutdtactics website.